‘Severance’ – A Modern Workplace Horror

Over the past week we’ve been watching a TV show that had come very enthusiastically recommended from a small number of people, it not having quite caught on with mainstream audiences. Maybe this is just the circles I move in being uncultured. Either way, more people should be watching Severance.

Amid the global financial crisis, housing crashes and pandemics wrecking havoc on capitalist systems, a grass root anti-work movement has been picking up steam. Keeping in mind that this is a not a movement who want to be handed a paycheck for nothing, but a push against the modern workplace culture. With shareholders interests being put ahead of all else and CEOs pocketing millions per year while the frontline workers have to find three jobs to make the rent, the smiling faces of big business are being turned upside down. The working class no longer accept the ideology that we should be grateful to be working, nor that hard work will be rewarded somewhere down the line, or even that your employer will look after you if you show enough loyalty. It simply does not happen.

That brings us to Dan Erickson’s creation, brought to us by way of Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle, about a workplace that has become a prison. If you want to go into this blank, the reveals in the pilot episode is one hell of an experience, otherwise we’re going to spoil it. Right now.

Prepare yourself.

Our main cast is reluctant leader Mark S. (Adam Scott), company loyalist Irving B.(John Turturro), cynical Dylan G. (Zach Cherry) and terrified newcomer Helly R. (Britt Lower), who work together in a cubicle office performing ambiguous data processing. The purpose of their work is not clear, but their imprisonment is the bigger issue. Each of them have been ‘severed’ to give them the ultimate work/life balance, having undergone an irreversible procedure to detach their work memories from their ‘outside’ life. In other words, after they leave work it is impossible to remember anything from work and vice-versa. Upon entering the elevator leading to their office, their home-life memories are inaccessible and for all intents and purposes does not exist.

This is a great deal for their outside lives (or ‘outties’), as they can focus on their family and personal well-being. They couldn’t dwell on work issues even if they tried. This sounds like a fantastic deal, especially after a recent incident of being woken from my COVID sickbed by non-stop calls from work demanding I meet a deadline that literally didn’t exist. The flip-side is the life of the ‘innies’, their detached working selves, who wake up each day when the elevator opens and switch off on the return trip up to the ground level at the end of the day. They literally only exist in the office and know nothing else of the world.

To keep the innies placated, we get a grotesque mockery of forced workplace culture. I’m sure many of us have encountered some form of this – the workplace that insists that we’re all a family, that we all support each other and there are genuine rewards for the effort. Workers at Lumon (by the way, the company is called Lumon) are goaded into meeting goals with the promise of simple novelties like finger-traps and pencil toppers. None of these have any function in their workplace, but they take on value as they are the only reward that can be earned. Promises of melon parties, egg salad parties, music and dance experiences and the coveted waffle party drive the workers to improve workplace, and are left standing awkwardly around the office unsure with what to do with themselves.

Even the cult of personality growing around real-life owners of successful companies is given the tongue-in-cheek treatment in the form of the company founder Eagan. The museum dedicated to this character isn’t far removed from the image cultivated by tech-company owners and only retailers who have achieved dragon-horde levels of wealth that they horde to the detriment of both their workers and society as a whole. The division between the super-wealthy and workers is growing by the day, and still there are thousands of fanboys not only defending men born into riches garnered through exploitation before buying innovative companies and taking credit for their work, but actively cheering them on as they pointlessly burrow under the Earth or launch their cock-rockets into lower orbit.

Obviously building up to becoming a penis-themed supervillain. He’s got the look for it.

The vaguely menacing employees and supervisors turn to actual menace as the series goes on. The ‘wellness sessions’ provide lip service to mental health wellbeing, but they only serve to get workers back to their station. This isn’t too bad, but the dreaded break room forces workers to take responsibility for the failings of their workplace. Representing this enclosed dystopia is Helly, the new worker desperate to escape this reality she has been dropped into. Irregardless of her attempts to alert her ‘outtie’ to her suffering through self-harm, it becomes increasingly clear that she’s not viewed as a human being with rights.

This is a disquieting psychological thriller that distorts our familiar office life into an endless torture with very, very little adjustment. The crushing pointlessness of many white collar jobs is put into sharp focus. The unfolding story follows Mark, both as an innie and outtie, attempting to discover the truth behind his workplace and it’s a fantastic story well worth sticking out to the fantastic season finale. As both a parody of modern workplaces and a tightly told sci-fi thriller, it delivers in spades. In addition to the main cast are Christopher Walken, Patricia Arquette, Dichen Lachman and a whole stable of character actors. Take a dive into Severance and try not to think about returning to work tomorrow.